Shalmai Jones is a research technician at the Brains for Dementia Research brain bank, King’s College London.

Shalmai Jones smiling to the camera

What led you to working in the brain bank?

I have always liked science, and while studying psychology in college my interest in neuroscience was sparked by the story of Phineas Gage. He was a railroad worker in the 1800s who survived a severe brain injury when an iron rod entered his head through his cheek and exited through the top of his skull. He recovered physically but his personality was drastically altered. 

I wanted to learn more about the brain and how brain injury, stress and disease can influence its function and our behaviour. I qualified as a biomedical scientist and jumped at the opportunity to take the job at the brain bank, where I could contribute my skills for processing and examining donated brain tissue.

What is a typical day like for you at the brain bank?

When a brain is donated to the Brains for Dementia Research brain bank, it is divided in two from front to back. Both sides are divided into blocks of brain regions that are affected by different dementia-related diseases. One side is quickly frozen to -80˚C. The other side is preserved in chemicals and embedded in wax. 

One aspect of my work involves these wax blocks of brain samples. I use a specialised machine to cut very thin slices of the wax-embedded tissue and mount these onto microscope slides. After this, I use special dyes and markers to highlight structures, brain cells and toxic proteins that have built up in that person’s brain.

The second aspect of my work involves preparing brain samples for researchers who have applied to Brains for Dementia Research to receive tissues from us. We can send them either frozen tissue samples or wax tissue on glass slides, depending on the type of research that they want to do.

Shalmai using a microscope

Do you think people have misconceptions about what brain banking is like?

Yes – a lot of people imagine it is very different from how we actually work. Brain donation and banking is a very careful and organised process. We always aim to work with the families of donors in the most compassionate way.

There are clear protocols and procedures set in place from the time of death of the donor to when their tissue is used for research.

What is your favourite thing about working for Brains for Dementia Research in the brain bank?

My favourite thing is being part of the brain banking network that we are building across the UK, which is opening up conversations about brain donation for research.

At our recent public and patient involvement event, I had the chance to speak to some of our current donors and their study partners (person close to them who will support the brain donation). They were so interested in the science and techniques behind getting a diagnosis and about how their brains will help research after they die. 

I feel encouraged to always work to the highest quality I can, because the person whose tissue I am working with is someone’s parent, partner or sibling.

Also, the brain tissue we provide researchers with may one day be used to make a crucial discovery about the causes of dementia and how we can cure it.

Please note, Brains for Dementia Research is not currently receiving brain donations.

Shalmai speaks to study partners visiting the brain bank

Information for dementia researchers

Researchers can find out how to apply to use Brains for Dementia Research tissue and data in their research.

Visit the website

Care and cure magazine: Summer 19

Care and cure is the research magazine of Alzheimer's Society is for anyone interested in dementia research.
Subscribe now
Care and cure is the research magazine of Alzheimer's Society is for anyone interested in dementia research.
Subscribe now

2 comments

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I really wish people would start looking at alive brains of people with dementia through regular scans etc. Because at the moment, after diagnosis, there is nothing. No attempts are made to improve their brains, improve oxygen flow, attempt to promote positive brain activity or limit damaging proteins etc. A diagnosis of dementia is a long term death sentence. Because without a diagnosis you are better off and the GP (note not a brain specialist) might try other things to help you.

Hi Kay,
Thanks very much for your comment and for your feedback. We very much agree, it is very important to study the effects of the diseases that cause dementia in living people.
We have invested over £2million so far into studies that use brain scans to study dementia. These are helping us to better understand the condition and find improved ways to diagnose.
We are also involved in long-term studies such as PREVENT (https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/Care-and-cure-magazine/summer-19/five-yea…), which follows people at high, medium and low risk of developing dementia for years. During this time they give participants regular testing, including brain scans to monitor their health and help to identify new signs (or biomarkers) which indicate dementia onset.

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